People at voting booths in Australia

People and Democracy

Involving people in policy and decision-making that affects their lives
Rushed policies, narrowly conceived and informed, seldom work. Effective policy development requires knowledge gained from experience, especially from those that tend to be excluded due to power imbalances in our society.

From new deliberative initiatives and collaborative policymaking led by refugee youth, to building a stronger civil society, justice and self-determination for First Nations People, and enhancing social connection during and after COVID-19. The Lab relishes the opportunity to try out new ideas and employ new ways of being together to created sustained forms of civic dialogue and policy influence. Read a snapshot of our research.

Recent public policy programs:

In partnership with Paul Ramsay Foundation and in collaboration with civil society leaders from across Australia, the Lab undertook an ambitious project to strengthen civil society and build community resilience. 

A crucial feature of Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was the response of civil society. From advocating in the halls of government for essential national policy measures to coordinating community-based food deliveries for people in need, Australia’s multitude of independent, non-government ‘for purpose’ organisations responded to the crisis in a variety of ways. Importantly, the COVID-19 pandemic, closely following the extraordinary 2019-20 bushfires, presented Australian for-purpose organisations with challenges and opportunities both old and new. 

Finalised in 2022, the project sought to understand how for-purpose organisations can respond to the needs of people and communities in times of crisis, and how they can be best supported to strengthen their practice, in order to rise to future social and environmental challenges as they unfold.

Read more about this project and access all its publications here

Read the final report: Nurturing Links Across Civil Society

Chief investigator: Professor Marc Stears

Core research team: Mark Riboldi and Lisa Fennis

Advisory Panel: Maha Abdo OAM (Muslim Women Australia), Tara Day-Williams (Stronger Places, Stronger People, Australian Government Department of Social Services), Jason Glanville (PwC Indigenous Consulting, Australian Indigenous Governance Institute), Devett Kennedy (Queensland Community Alliance), Edwina MacDonald (Australian Council of Social Services: ACOSS), Anandini Saththianathan (Paul Ramsay Foundation), Liz Skelton (Collaboration for Impact), Anita Tang (Australian Progress), Dame Julia Unwin (Civil Society Futures).

Migrant workers are often vulnerable to exploitation and underpayment. Indeed, the violation of the workplace rights of migrant workers is a live topic in policy and political debates in Australia. Major government inquiries including the Senate Inquiry A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Worker Visa Holders and the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce have drawn attention to this issue in recent years. Large-scale litigation has been brought by the Fair Work Ombudsman and other legal actors in disputes over workplace rights.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sydney Policy Lab supported research into the protection of labour rights of migrant workers. What are the key issues for migrants and employers? What is the role of legal actors, broadly defined, in shaping the policy landscape of workplace rights for migrant workers in Australia? These are the questions this research seeks to address, drawing on analysis of close to 1000 court cases brought by migrant workers to trace the nature, extent and attributes of alleged workplace violations experienced by migrant workers in four jurisdictions: Australia, Canada (Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario), England and the State of California over a 20-year period (1996-2016). It covers criminal, wage, safety and leave violations and discriminatory actions against employees. It also includes interviews with legal parties, non-governmental organisations and migrant worker associations on several of the cases.

In 2021 the research team published a policy paper based on comparative international research and discussions with public and private lawyers, trade union officials, non-government sector representatives and others. Read the policy paper here.  

Governments in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, alongside the OECD, have sought insights from this research project, which was published as a book titled Patterns of Exploitation: Understanding Migrant Workplace Violations Globally in April 2023 with Oxford University Press. Read about the book here. The project has also been published in the Journal of Industrial Relations.

Research team: Associate Professor Anna Boucher and Umeya Chaudhuri

Previous public policy programs have included:

In 2021 and 2022 Sydney Policy Lab launched two iterations of the independent Open Society, Common Purpose Taskforce to help lead public conversations and policymaking about the COVID-19 response and recovery. 

The taskforces brought together academic experts with representatives of industry, civil society, and arts and culture. They sought expert advice and listened to community groups and everyday Australians. 

The 2021 Taskforce focused on questions of reopening boarders and (re)building social connection publishing the Roadmap to Reopening report and Principles for Reopening. Read more here

The 2022 Taskforce investigated questions of post-pandemic recovery, or how to build back better and sustainably, and published a report titled The Great Australian Renovation. Read more here.

Aligning policy and resources towards an Aboriginal community-led agenda is a commitment more often made than followed through. This case study of the Maranguka Cross Sector Leadership Group, prepared by the Sydney Policy Lab, offers insights for government and non-government organisations wishing to align policy and resources towards supporting community-led agendas for change. 

The case study draws on the knowledge and practice of the Bourke Tribal Council through Maranguka, a community-led initiative based in the town of Bourke in Western NSW, which, as stated on the Maranguka Community Hub website, “is a grassroots vision for improving outcomes and creating better coordinated support for vulnerable families and children through the true empowerment of the local Aboriginal community.”

The case study examines a previously unexplored aspect of Maranguka – the Maranguka Cross Sector Leadership Group (CSLG), a key site of interaction and direct engagement between local Aboriginal community leadership and government and non-government organisations. The evolution and story of the Maranguka CSLG offers important lessons for those wishing to support and respond to Aboriginal community leadership – including politicians, government agencies, philanthropists, and service providers.

The Sydney Policy Lab’s research highlights four key factors involved in the Maranguka Cross Sector Leadership Group:

  1. Strong community leadership to which other partners align their activities;
  2. The commitment, time and skills required to engage in deep collaboration and build trust around a common purpose;
  3. The importance of authorisation, including the need to respect Cultural Authority, and the role of political leaders in giving ‘permission’ to act; and
  4. Different levels of accountability, formalised through milestone documents, structures and processes which lay the groundwork and tone for future activity.

While these lessons emerged from the specific context of the Maranguka initiative in Bourke led by the Bourke Tribal Council, they offer potential insights for other government and non-government organisations wishing to align policy and resources towards supporting community-led agendas for change.

Read the full report here

Research team: Professor Marc Stears, Mark Riboldi, Lara Smal.

Project partners: Maranguka Community Hub, Dusseldorp Forum, and Paul Ramsay Foundation.

This report prepared by the Sydney Policy Lab for Multicultural NSW offers insights as to how we can better enable young refugees to directly influence the development of the public policies that shape their lives.

After many years of declining trust in established institutions, there have been increasing calls for and efforts to include people from the broader community in public decision-making. This is emerging at all levels of governance, and is underpinned by the potential to develop innovative ways of finding consensus on and solutions to long-term and complex challenges. Accordingly, the decade ahead may present new opportunities to reshape the relationship between people and their governments.

It is in this context that the Refugee Youth Policy Initiative was born. This is a unique NSW Government initiative led by Multicultural NSW and the NSW Coordinator General for Refugee Resettlement that seeks to include young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds in the process of decision making about settlement services policy in NSW.

The report contributes to practice-based evidence and enrich understanding of what works and what does not work in efforts directly to include people in policymaking processes, particularly regarding initiatives that include people who are experts by direct experience in the policy matters being considered.

It found that public participation in policymaking, at its heart, can have most impact when it is underpinned by two fundamental factors:

  • a willingness to innovate – to try something new, and
  • a willingness to share power and responsibility with members of the public.

Key insights and recommendations are outlined in the report.

Read the report here

Research team: Professor Susan Goodwin, Sanushka Mudaliar, Isabelle Napier, Professor Marc Stears

Project partners: Multicultural NSW, Refugee Youth Policy Initiative

Policy advocacy is an increasingly important function of many non-profit organisations, as they seek broad social changes in their concerning issues. Their advocacy practices, however, have often been guided by their own past experiences, anecdotes from peer networks, and consultant advice. Most of their practices have largely escaped empirical and theoretical grounding that could better root their work in established theories of policy change.

The first book of its kind, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan, Nonprofits in Policy Advocacy bridges this gap by connecting real practices of on-the-ground policy advocates with the burgeoning academic literature in policy studies. 

In the process, it empirically identifies six distinct policy advocacy strategies, and their accompanying tactics, used by non-profits. Case studies tell the stories of how advocates apply these strategies in a wide variety of issues including civil rights, criminal justice, education, energy, environment, public health, public infrastructure, and youth. 

This book will appeal to both practitioners and academics, as each gains insights into the other’s views of policy change and the actions that produce it.

Read more here

Research team: Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright, Associate Professor Sheldon Gen (San Francisco State University)

Project partners: A variety of US-based non-profits are featured in the book, including Sierra Club, American Lung Association, Code Pink, Parents for Public Schools and many more.

During COVID-19 and the aftermath, Australian policymakers have faced momentous decisions. 

To help them navigate the challenges with which they are confronted, the Sydney Policy Lab asked experts in migration, democracy, public health, infectious diseases, epidemiology, mathematics, bioethics, economics and political philosophy: what do policymakers need to do to deal with the enormously complex questions revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Our COVID-19 Sydney Policy Papers, and a second series of papers, In Depth, are the result of these discussions.

Read the papers here

Like many other global cities, Sydney is becoming a city of extremes with a growing divide between the haves and have nots. There are persistent gaps between groups in Sydney that enjoy the majority of benefits of the city’s growth compared with the groups that do not.

The City of Sydney, therefore, has to be able to keep track of the inequalities on its doorstep, so that it can know when to step in and when to call for change. To this end, the Lab developed a wholly new set of inequality indicators to help the City track, evaluate and take action on the state of inequality within the City.

Drawing from best practice in collaboration with researchers in New York and London, the Sydney Policy Lab developed measures across a host of domains – from public participation to employment – and demographics – from age to income group.

The research found that inequalities are starkest for City residents who are Indigenous, low-income, or living with disability, and that there are inequalities on the basis of citizenship, gender and sexuality in key areas of City life. Not only does disadvantage affect certain groups in Sydney disproportionately, but advantage also accrues to other groups on the basis of class, race, ability, gender and citizenship.

Download the report here (pdf, 4.1MB).

Research team: Dr Rebecca Pearse, Dr James Hitchcock and Llewellyn Williams-Brooks, with advice from Professor Marc Stears, Professor Frank Stilwell, Dr Madeleine Pill, Isabelle Napier, Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, Associate Professor Liz Hill, Dr Michael Beggs, Professor David Schlosberg and Associate Professor Alexandre Lefebvre

Project partner: City of Sydney

Over the last decade or so, many Not for Profits (NFPs) and civil society-based advocacy organisations have increased their focus on digital and field-based public engagement to enhance both their membership and donor base. Yet at the same time, due to rising overheads, many have been forced to downsize their internal capacities to undertake research.

What is effective citizen empowerment and action for social change in a time of democratic turmoil? How can university researchers and policy communities together build relationships that enable inclusive social change? This project mapped the process of internal research capacity change in the NFP sector, and examined how organisations tend to seek external university-based research partnerships or could be interested in doing so in the future. With the rapid digitalisation of research methodologies, the project assessed the core needs for either new or updated research skills development among NFP and advocacy organisation staff.

The research team audited and surveyed around 500 advocacy and campaigning organisations, comprising 300 citizen advocacy organisations, augmented by an estimated 200 NSW-based citizen advocacy groups, community legal centres, think tanks, and political parties. Workshops on digital associations, democracy and election advocacy, in combination with the audit and survey, contributed to a deepening understanding of the changing landscape of policy engagement and instrumental role of research translation in effective advocacy.

Research team: Associate Professor Anna Boucher, Dr Madison Cartwright, Associate Professor Amy Conley-Wright, Noah D’Mello, Associate Professor Anika Gauja, Dr Madeleine Pill, Professor Ariadne Vromen

Project partners: The Advisory Panel for this project includes representatives from the Community and Public Sector Union, Oxfam Australia, the Committee for Sydney, the Sydney Alliance and the Australian National University

Around the world, established political parties and democratic institutions seem unable to rise to the enormity of the global challenges we face, from inequality to climate change. Hungry for change, citizens are looking for alternatives.

With most of the world’s population living in cities, this project examined the new democratic practices and organisational forms emerging in a myriad of global cities that enable citizens to organise and participate meaningfully in political life.

At the end of 2019, the Sydney Policy Lab convened over a dozen leading grassroots campaigners from across the world for a ‘Global Gathering’ at the University of Sydney. Hailing from Cape Town, Hong Kong, Barcelona, London, Cardiff and more, they learned from each other and collaborated with researchers to advance understandings of citizen-led social and political change.

Supported and partly funded by the Lab, the project is part of a three-year program of work funded by the Henry Halloran Trust. Insights from this project will be published in a forthcoming book, People Power in the City, and were published in a journal article in the International Journal of Housing Studies. 

The Global Gathering was featured by the Guardian Australia and across multiple episodes of the ChangeMakers podcast.

Research team: Dr Amanda Tattersall and Associate Professor Kurt Iveson

Project partners: Sydney Alliance, Queensland Community Alliance, Reclaim the City (South Africa), Citizens UK, Industrial Areas Foundation Northwest (USA), Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and Way to Win (USA)